Spitting intotheplastic test tube, I felt nervous. I was offering up a piece of myself for decoding, and while this timethere was no silver-haired sage, it reminded me of a visit to a fortune teller when I was 21.
Then, I offeredthepalm of my hand in a bid to divine what fate had planned for me. Now, it wasDNA, with my saliva destined for a laboratory in southwest China, totheheadquarters ofChengdu 23Mofang Biotechnology Co., a startup thats seeking to tap a boom in consumer genetics intheworlds most populous nation.
Rising awareness of genetically-linked diseases like Alzheimers and a natural human curiosity for insight intothefuture is fueling a global market for direct-to-consumerDNAtesting thats predicted totripleoverthenext six years. In China, wherethegovernment has embraced genetics as part of its push to become a scientific superpower,theindustry is expected to see US$405 million in sales by 2022, according to Beijing research firm EO Intelligence, an eight-fold increase from 2018. Some 4 million people will send away test tubes of spit in China this year, and I had just become one ofthem.
Not only was I entering a world where lack of regulation has spawned an entire industry devoted to identifyingthefuture talents of newborn babiesthroughtheir genes, I was handing over my genetic code to a country wherethegovernment has been accused of usingDNAtesting to profile minority groups a concern that hit home whentheresults showed I was a member of one.
I wanted to see whethertheburgeoning industry delivered on its claims in China, where scientists have gained international attention and criticism for pushingtheboundaries of genetics. And as a child of Vietnamese immigrants totheUS, Ive long been curious about my ancestry and genetic makeup.
To get an idea of how this phenomenon is playing out intheworlds two biggest consumer markets, I comparedtheDNAtesting experience of 23Mofang withthefirm CEO Zhou Kun says it was inspired by:23andMe Inc., one ofthebest known consumer genetics outfits intheUS.
Thedifferences betweenthetwo companies are stark.
23andMe was co-founded byAnne Wojcicki, a Wall Street biotech analyst once married toGoogleco-founderSergey Brin.TheMountain View, California-based firm has more than 10 million customers and has collected 1 billion genetic data points, according to itswebsite. Brin and Google were early investors.
By contrast, 23Mofang is run out oftheChinese city of Chengdu, and Zhou, 36, is a computer science graduate who createdthecompany after becoming convinced Chinas next boom would be inthelife sciences sector. 23Mofang expects to have 700,000 customers bytheend of this year, a number he projects will at least double in 2020.
Thedivergence betweenthetwo countries andtheir regulation oftheindustry is just as palpable. Chinas race to dominate genetics has seen it push ethical envelopes, with scientistHe Jiankuisparking a global outcry last year by claiming to have editedthegenes of twin baby girls.Theexperiment, which He said madethem immune to HIV, put a spotlight on Chinas laissez-faire approach to regulating genetic science andthebusinesses that have sprung up around it.
When my reports came back, 23Mofangs analysis was much more ambitious than its American peer. Its results gauged how long I will live, diagnosed a high propensity for saggy skin (recommending I use products including Olay and Estee Lauder creams) and gave me an optimist not prone to mood swings a higher-than-average risk of developing bipolar disorder. 23andMe doesnt assess mental illness, which Gil McVean, a geneticist at Oxford University, says is highly influenced by both environmental and genetic factors.
Thefortune teller who pored over my palm told me I would live to be a very old woman. 23Mofang initially said I had a better-than-average chance of living to 95, before revisingtheresults to say 58% of clients hadthesame results as I did, making me not that special, and perhaps not that long-living.
When I ranthefinding pastEric Topol, a geneticist who foundedtheScripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, he laughed. Ninety-five years old?Theres no way to put a number on longevity, he said. Its a gimmick. Its so ridiculous.
Zhou saidtheaccuracy ofthelongevity analysis, based on a 2014 genetics paper, is not too bad, thoughthecompany plans to updatetheanalysis with research thats being undertaken on Chinese elderly.
But when it comes to disease,theresults of both companies showed howthescience of genetics, particularly attheconsumer level, is still a moving target.
Its All AbouttheData
After claiming I had a 48% greater risk thanthegeneral population of developing type 2 diabetes, both 23Mofang and 23andMethen revisedtheresults.
First, 23andMe cuttherisk figure from its analysis, posted in an online portal I accessed with a password.Theoverview analysis that I have an increased likelihood of developingthedisease never changed. But a few months later,thefigure was back, with a slightly different explanation: Based on data from 23andMe research participants, people of European descent with genetics like yourshave an estimated 48% chance of developing type 2 diabetes at some point between your current age and 80.
Shirley Wu, 23andMes director of health product, saidthecompany occasionally updates its analysis. My risk figure might have changed if I indicated my ethnicity and age, she said. I hadnt given any biographical details or filled out any surveys on 23andMes site.
Your risk estimates will likely change over time as science gets better and as we have more data, Wu said. We are layering in different non-genetic risk factors, and that potentially updates our estimates.
Algorithms and data underpintheanalysis of both companies, asthey do for other genetic testing firms, so it apparently isnt unusual forDNAanalysis to shift as more research and data into diseases becomeavailable. Still, I was confused.
I reached out to Topol, who said that 23andMes diabetes finding likely didnt apply to me sincethevast majority of people studied forthedisease are of European descent. Wu saidthe American company does have a predominantly European database but has increased efforts to gather data for other ethnicities as well.
23Mofang, meanwhile, also revised my diabetes risk to 26%. My genes hadnt changed, so why hadtheresults? CEO Zhou saidthecompany is constantly updating its research and datasets, and that may changetheanalysis. As time goes by,there will be fewer corrections and greater accuracy, he said.
For now, theres a possibility you can later get a result thats opposite oftheinitial analysis, said Zhou.
Additionally,theaccuracy of genetic analysis varies hugelydepending onthetraits and conditions tested because some are less genetically linkedthan others.
Zhou isnt deterred by criticism. He said 23Mofang employs big data and artificial intelligence to findthecorrelations to diseases without relying on scientists to figure it out.
While its impossible to get things 100% right,thecompanys accuracy will get better with more data, he said.
You might assume thatthetwo companies would offer similar analysis of my ancestry, which Ive long thought to be three-fourths Vietnamese and one-fourth Chinese (my paternal grandfather migrated from China as a young man). Born in Vietnam and raised intheUS, I now live in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.
23andMes analysis mirrored what I knew, but my ancestry according to 23Mofang? 63% Han Chinese, 22% Dai an ethnic group in southwestern China and 3% Uyghur. (It didnt pick up my Vietnam ancestry becausetheanalysis only compares my genetics to those of other Chinese, according tothecompany.)
That led me tothebig question in this grand experiment: How safe is my data afterthesetests?
Human Rights Watch said in 2017 that Chinese authorities collectedDNAsamples from millions of people in Xinjiang,thepredominately Muslim region thats home totheUyghur ethnic group. Chinas use of mass detention and surveillance intheregion has drawn international condemnation. What if Beijing compelled companies to relinquishdata on all clients with Uyghur ancestry? Couldthedetails of my Uyghur heritage fall into government hands and put me at risk of discrimination or extra scrutiny on visits to China?
23Mofangs response tothese questions didnt give me much solace. Regulations enacted in July gavethegovernment access to data held by genetics companies for national security, public health and social interest reasons.Thecompany respectsthelaw, said Zhou. Ifthelaw permitsthegovernments access tothedata, we will give it, he said.
Theauthorities havent made any requests for customer data yet, Zhou pointed out. Chinas State Council, which issuedtheregulations, andtheMinistry of Science & Technology didnt respond to requests for comment.
Over intheUS, 23andMe said it never shares customer data with law enforcement unlesstheres a legally valid requestsuch as a search warrant or written court order.Thecompany said its had seven government requests for data on 10 individual accounts since 2015 and has not turned over any individual customer data. It uses all legal measures to challenge such requests to protect customers privacy, said spokeswoman Christine Pai.
New York Universitybioethics professorArt Caplansays privacy protections on genetic information are poor in most countries, including in the USand China.
I dont think anyone can say theyre going to protect you, he said. In China, its even easier for the government. The government retains the right to look.
23andMe appeals to potential customers with the lure of being able to make more informed decisions about your health, but after taking tests on both sides of the Pacific and realizing how malleable the data can be, as well as the myriad factors that determine diseases and conditions, I am left more skeptical than enlightened.
I gave away something more valuable than a vial of spit the keys to my identity. It could become a powerful tool in understanding disease and developing new medicines, but in the end its entrepreneurs like Zhou who will ultimately decide what to do with my genetic data. He plans to eventually look for commercial uses, like working with pharmaceutical companies to develop medicines for specific diseases.
We want to leverage the big database we are putting together on Chinese people, Zhou said. But first, we need to figure out how to do it ethically.
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